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For close to a century, United Engineers Limited (the "Group") has played a part in shaping the economic and physical landscape of Singapore. The Group has been behind the building of innumerable landmarks and monumental structures that stand proud on the island-state today - The previous Singapore Supreme Court, Cavenagh Bridge, British High Commission, OCBC Centre, Shangri-la Hotel, and its own flagship building, UE Square.

The Group's history can be dated back to the middle of the 19th century when British pioneers, Richard Riley and William Hargreaves, who then formed Riley Hargreaves & Co in 1865, building bridges, steamers and the Fort Canning Lighthouse, came together with Samuel Erskine and J. Howarth, who founded the engineering firm Howarth Erskine & Co in 1875, specialising in the design and construction of iron and steel structures and waterworks to form United Engineers Limited in 1912.

Howarth Erskine & Co, Ltd
General view of Messrs. Howarth Erskine & Co., Ltd. on River Valley Road, in Singapore (c. 1900)
From the very beginning, the Group was a well established Asian company with a strong presence in Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, China and Singapore. It built its strengths further through acquisitions which included the Federated Engineering Company of Kuala Lumpur known for its bridge building, brass, founding and general engineering capabilities.

Having strengthened its foothold in engineering, construction and the supply of heavy equipment, the Group decided to provide an even more comprehensive service to customers. In 1971, it acquired McAlister and Company for its wide range of products such as road sweepers, fire engines, pharmaceuticals, heavy-duty kitchen equipment, and agencies for life insurance and travel.

UE Singapore head office

The Singapore head office in River Valley Road. (c. 1970)

A new team of talents were then brought into the Group with Mr Tang I-Fang assuming Chairmanship in 1987. The Group raised its profile by focusing on higher value-added projects and international ventures. In 1988, the Group continued to grow with the acquisition of the exclusive Asian licence for ServiceMaster - a world-renowned brand name in management support systems.

The Group saw strong growth in the 1990s. Its engineering and construction divisions clinched several large-scale, prestigious projects. It also acquired an 85% stake in Greatearth Construction, which later led to the winning of the project to install a seawater cooling system for the Changi Naval Base.

In 1996, the Group hit double-digit growth in turnover and profit, and continued to reinvent and strengthen its businesses in the following years. Today, the Group has repositioned itself, after having divested its non-core businesses and streamlined its entire operations. It continues to be a recognisable brand name in the property and engineering sectors.

The Group has about 3,000 employees across 8 countries in Asia, United Kingdom and North America.

In the late 1920s, the Group was importing, supplying and manufacturing much of the heavy equipment needed in Singapore's industries and was instrumental in the construction boom later in the 1930s.
During the Second World War, all the plants and machinery in Singapore and Malaysia were destroyed to prevent valuable resources from falling into the Japanese' hands. The period also saw many of the Group's European employees leaving the country. However after the war, many came back to start things anew with the help of a large influx of new and young talent.
Despite the industrial unrest and labour strikes of the 1950s, the Group contributed significantly to the reconstruction of Singapore and also became a major player in the thriving ship repair and shipbuilding sectors. By 1960, it established a strong reputation as a premier engineering company and an agency for 72 foreign companies.

Jurong Industrial Estate

Jurong Industrial Estate under development - aerial view. (c. 1960s)

After Independence in 1965, Singapore embarked on a major rebuilding phase: developing new infrastructure, reclaiming land, worked on schools, housing and hospitals. With its foreign dealerships, the Group became a contractor of choice for many new re-development projects. During this time, the Group introduced many innovations such as light-gauge steel for roof structures and the Space Deck structural system which allowed the construction of column-free structures and buildings. It was also one of the first companies that were able to perform steel casing and the only foundry that could meet the strict quality requirements of Lloyd's Register of Shipping. It was also the first private company in Singapore to computerise operations.